People in Pennsylvania considering a solar energy system investment to offset some or all of their electricity costs soon realize there are a lot of things to consider. Some may choose to do independent research. Others may choose to first locate a contractor or two for advice. Either of these ways is common no matter what your home improvement may be. But as solar power has become common and more affordable, competition has stiffened. And many consumer advocates are suggesting that homeowners are best served by first finding and consulting an installer they feel they can trust.
What a Reputable Solar Installer Does
Saying “solar energy” or “solar photovoltaics” covers a lot of ground with respect to the technology behind the products. It covers more that any one component, whether it is a solar panel, a solar inverter, or some other safety equipment like an automatic disconnect. There are also long lists of rules, regulations, and best practices that are implied or mandated every time a solar energy system is designed. Some installers may choose to work with one or a very few product manufacturers and rely on those companies to keep them informed of advancements. Others, like Exact Solar, choose to work with a wider range of suppliers in an effort to find the best combinations and solutions with few limitations. In our opinion, reputable solar installers should strive to do the following:
Stay current with advances in solar technology. An installer doesn’t necessarily need to know what is happening at the research and development level. But we best serve customers by knowing what improvements have been made that deliver better performance AND value. Just being newer and more expensive is not always best.
Keep in touch with local and national regulations. Codes, rules, and requirements change with varying frequency. These changes often allow review so people in the industry may give valuable input. Great insight comes from that, whether or not all changes become policy. It can translate to getting a jump on changing our own practices in advance to ensure our customers will be in compliance. Sometimes those changes are just sound practice whether or not they are finally officially adopted.
Learn from experience. The longer we have been in practice, the more we learn. Installers should constantly refine practices from design to the smallest details during installation. The goal will always be to deliver the highest performance at the best value. And after years of serving the area, we still find ways to do the job better.
In short, a reputable solar installer does not necessarily do more work or know more than another installer. But it is one where business practices ensure that the product and workmanship are always approaching the highest quality possible.
There Is a Difference Between Local and National Companies
It takes a concerted effort to stay current on all things and stand behind the desire to be a reputable service provider at the top of the heap. To some that might mean that bigger is always better, because it seems natural that there will always be more people to do the work and run the company, too. Quite often the bigger companies also operate in a larger region, including national chains. Bigger might be best when it comes to building a massive power plant, or even for certain maintenance or repairs to your home. You might buy appliances from a national retailer. But would you automatically choose a national chain to upgrade your entire kitchen, for example? Very often local is better. And for solar energy systems, where cost and quality are most important, there is some data to back that up.
A recent study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) looked at 1,000 systems installed between 2013 and 2015. It separated the projects between large solar installers (those that installed more than 1,000 systems in any year) and non-large solar installers (those that installed less than 1,000 systems in any year). These groups include local and national operations, but as a rule those defined as large installers almost all operate on a national or at least a super-regional level.
A few key findings from this study:
- There were 1,588 installers, of which 176 (11%) were Large Installers, and 1,412 (89%) were Non-Large Installers.
- The mean price quoted calculates to $3.66 per watt (in 2013 to 2015 dollars).
- The mean for Non-Large Installers was $3.62 (1% lower that the total mean). The mean for Large Installers was $3.99 (9% above the total mean).
- The disparity was true for the least expensive grouping and the most expensive grouping (see diagram).
Another study conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) also looked for patterns that deliver lower priced (LP) solar systems. Some of the study authors’ conclusions are that installers that met the LP definition tended to have lower local market share, more experience at the county and state level (for each market), and in general conducted a lower level of business overall.
While the LBNL and NREL studies do not positively conclude that local and smaller companies will always offer the best pricing and quality, their analysis identifies strong trends this is true.
Finding a Good Installer
The common advice to work with installers early when researching solar energy for your home is a little complicated in itself. Not all installers are created equal. Building on the referenced studies above, we suggest homeowners are best served by talking to a few installers to consult and to build the rapport you desire. Depending on your needs and your preferences, consider the following in searching out a “good” installer:
Determine if their method of operation is compatible. Some companies welcome offering personal service, meeting each customer’s individual information needs and communication style. Others prefer to offer you a single low-priced system with the expectation you decide yes or no quickly.
If you value a personal and longer term relationship, ask to meet those who you will work with, now and in the future.
If you will finance or you are not clear about your ability to afford the investment, ask for specific information about programs and options. Because this changes often, be careful about any representative that generalizes.
Solar energy systems are long term investments, that should be designed to operate for 25 or more years. Because they are valued by home buyers, even if you think you may not be in the home for that length of time, find out how the installer services the system and any new owners down the road. That can be a deal maker or breaker at the sale of the home.
Finding a good and reputable solar installer should be a first or early step in your search. For your convenience we offer this “10 Question to Ask Any Solar Installer” for download and for your reference at any time. Scroll up and click the blue button on the right to download your copy.